Thinking About Quality

I’ve been reading Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class As Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, which argues that an intimacy with manual trades may revitalize a connection to the material world lost to those who spend their lives in offices or cubicles, staring at computer screens for eight to twelve hours a day, unable to quantify exactly what it is that they do. I’m digging it. It aligns, in many ways, with a philosophy John Atkinson has shared with me: Do doingfully.

Even here, in our cushy office, we take great pride in getting under the hood, taking a wrench to our pages, doing the best job possible. We feel an intense connection to the finished product. We know what we do. We make magazines, the sort we’d like to read. My work here is not altogether foreign from the work I did as an apprentice pipefitter at the chemical plant in Port Newark. And I like that. I like getting dirty. I like busting my ass and having something real to show for it.

But I know that many people do not feel the same strong connection to their work, and I think that’s a shame. I think this disconnect is somehow related to our culture’s general tolerance for crap. If we felt a deep connection to our own work, taking good, strong pride in that which we build, we’d demand the same sort of quality from every aspect of our lives. We’d want and expect better tools, better experiences, better everything. Instead, it seems we increasingly settle for less, adapting to shit, sacrificing quality for “convenience.” But who is responsible for these so-called conveniences? Did I ask for the ability to know what 245 of my “friends” were feeling, thinking, and doing in 420 characters or less? What is that good for, really?

Keeping in touch? Bah.

Why are we obsessed with Farmville? Is it really the closest we can get to growing our own food?

If we spent as much time tending to our dreams as we do our fake farms, we’d create something beautiful. If only we knew what to do, if only someone would tell us. This new world is stripping us of our ability to think, to dream, to care, and I’m concerned about the consequences. We should demand better, we should want better.

Two recent articles in the New York Times have helped to inspire these thoughts. The first, “In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back,” does a disservice to audiophiles, music lovers, and the generally curious by equating high-quality sound with astronomical prices, making it seem that a good stereo is unobtainable by all but the privileged, and references, again, the work done by Jonathan Berger, a professor of music at Stanford, who found that an increasing number of his students preferred the sound of shitty MP3s over that of high-fidelity recordings.

The article includes a picture of a stereo system in Stereo Exchange’s big listening room, and notes the price: $125,000. The article does not mention that Stereo Exchange also offers more affordable gear from companies like NAD, Pro-Ject, Tangent, Rotel, and Totem. The article does not mention that Stereo Exchange could put together an outstanding system for a total cost of $1000. But of course the article omits these bits. What fun would it be to tell people the whole story?

Music is one of the most important things in my life. I consider myself an audiophile. I own a hi-fi. But $125,000 for a stereo seems crazy to me, too! And I know how good $125,000 can sound. Jeez, if I didn’t know better, the New York Times would have scared me away. The total cost of my system, using the components’ retail prices when new, is around $6000, and I think it sounds pretty damn good. And, yes, you can put together a high-quality stereo for $1000; you can even put together a high-quality stereo for less, if you take some time and shop wisely.

There are questions surrounding Jonathan Berger’s research which, to my knowledge, have gone unaddressed. What source and accessories were used? If the students were listening through a low-quality MP3 player with cheap earbuds, the results of the study may be null. Even I would be hard-pressed to note differences in sound quality when my only tools were faulty. This would be like a carpenter trying to build a house with a plastic hammer. Further, what types of recordings were used? Were they well-recorded pieces of work, or were they overly compressed pop recordings? I have found that poor recordings can sound better when played through low-quality systems; higher quality systems reveal flaws that bad systems overlook. But hi-fi should not be punished because of what it does right. When we are sick, bad food can taste better, but wouldn’t we rather be well?

Finally, did the students know what they were listening to? Were they told beforehand that they were listening to the low-quality track? Were they taught what to listen for? My feeling is that, when given all the information and when taught the difference between good and bad, the majority of the students would be more attracted to the higher quality music files. To think otherwise is an insult to the human spirit, an insult to our abilities to think and to choose wisely.

Another thing: Jonathan Berger wonders if his students’ attraction to low-quality MP3s, with their “sizzle,” bears a resemblance to older audiophiles’ preference for the crackle of vinyl records over the digital cleanliness of the compact disc. Is the “sizzle” of MP3, like the pops and ticks of our dear old vinyl, a sort of cultural bond, something that will bring fond memories to future generations of music lovers? Fuck no! Look, I know that pops and ticks are comforting to some people, but I don’t know a single audiophile—not even Art Dudley or 78-loving Jonathan Halpern of Tone Imports—who’d prefer a scratched-up, dirty, worn-out vinyl record over a pristine copy of same. The audiophiles who rebelled against the compact disc did so because they heard its early flaws, not because they missed the pops and ticks of their old records.

Put another way, the audiophiles who rebelled against the compact disc did so because they still knew how to think. They demanded better. They had their pride. They cared. They hadn’t yet been neutered by technological advantages. They knew what they wanted, and they were willing to fight for it.

Which brings me to today’s New York Times article, “Cellphones Now Used More for Data Than for Calls.” Here we ponder the strange fact that, while more people are using cell phones—are, in fact, even going so far as to entirely remove landlines from their homes—fewer people are using their cell phones to make phone calls. WTF?

Might it have anything to do with the fact that, when it comes to call reception, cell phones are absolutely dreadful? Can you hear me now? Is there an app for that? What? I said…what? I’m sorry…what? Why can’t I hear what you’re saying?!

Remember the old days, when, if we had something important to say to someone far away, we’d pick up the phone and call that person? Now, we’ve been reduced to texts and all sorts of abused language. It’s true: Some people still pick up a phone when the message that needs to be communicated is sensitive or personal, but all too often we see people on Facebook or Twitter revealing extremely delicate shit to the entire world. People are having babies online, marriages are ending online, people are dying online. And there’s no such thing as privacy to the younger generation. Everything that happens is material for our online profiles. I know: I sound like an old fart. Let me call you back on my landline.

I am astounded by the sonic quality of old-fashioned landlines. It’s like, “Holy shit. Wait a second…I can actually hear what you’re saying! Dude, it’s been so long. Let’s talk!”

Landlines are like magic. Indeed, the difference in quality between cell phones and landlines is very similar to that between shitty-ass MP3 files and high-resolution audio. Why aren’t more people complaining about the poor reception of their cell phones? My fear is that we’ve become distracted by all of the little “conveniences” smart phones provide: easy access to our Farmvilles, for instance. Gotta water the crops.

We are being stripped of our personal agency by complete bullshit, living in virtual worlds where we are reduced to cartoon avatars and case-sensitive passwords, with little responsibility for our actions and increasingly dependent upon touch screens and invisible applications for problems that we should not have. WTF and OMG, I’m LMAO over here.

I want a big, black, Western Electric rotary phone—one with a brass bell that fucking rings like a bell should ring, something that I didn’t download for $4 a month—and I want to be able to hear my friends when I’m talking to them. I want a big, black record, pressed on extremely quiet vinyl, to have and to hold from this day forward, to be played at exactly the right speed on my badass hi-fi. I want the necessary knowledge to make my own decisions, and I want the necessary tools to do a good job. I want people to expect more from themselves, to expect more from those around them. We should fill our lives with quality. We should care.

In that first New York Times article I mentioned, Thomas Pinales, a 22-year old who listens to music through an iPod and earbuds, is asked whether sound quality matters to him. He confesses that he would be interested in upgrading, but quickly adds, “I don’t know if I could really tell the difference.”

My concern here goes beyond my love for hi-fi. I’m more concerned about the future of our civilization, really. Why is there this insecurity, this lack of pride? I want Thomas Pinales to know that he would certainly be able to tell the difference, if only he had the knowledge. It’s within his grasp, if he wants it.

Mark Fleischmann's picture

If you want my two vintage Bell System rotary dial phones, you'll have to pry them out of my cold, dead hands.

Nate DT's picture

Nice post, brings a bunch of threads together quite nicely. Thanks!

Lionel's picture

The astonishing thing is just how low expectations are.That Western Electric phone has a bandwidth of about 100-3000hz +/- 6db. It's been years since I've seen a chart, but it's not even close to a flat 100-3000hz. And yet the quality, as you point out, is infinitely better than what we've grown to expect with cell phones.The earbuds which come with iPods are lower-fi than the headphones that used to come with Sony Walkmen. While it's not as good as running it into a DAC with the Wadia adaptor, you can get an extremely good signal out of an iPod's headphone jack just running into a decent set of headphones, giving sound that would have been considered phenomenal for digital 20 years ago. Not $1500 Sennheisers, either, but a $25 pair of aftermarket headphones or earbuds or (even better) a $70 pair of Grados. But people have been given crap for so long that they seem to expect it.

Eric Shook's picture

Where is the LIKE button for this post?

john devore's picture

Say it brother, say it!

Jim Tavegia's picture

I wonder what would happen if I texted my HS Principal like that? HMMMM? JA must be great to work for.

John Atkinson's picture


Sasha's picture

Wow, my thoughts exactly. And a damn well written, explained and argued thought.So now what are we going to do about it!I'm a young audiophile and take every opportunity to show and educate friends on the difference, but it's an uphill battle.

DavePage's picture

All agreeable. You think the man in the street with his earbuds doesn't get it, you should see what 'audiophile' reviewer Theresa Goodwin says in "An Analog Lover's Adventures and Adaptation of Digital": is truly the most appaling bit of audio journalism I have ever read. So stunned was I by the level of ineptitude in this lady's view of audio that I thought that this must be an April Fool. Seemingly not, as she actually charges for a pdf full of her muffled perceptions. I won't grace the absurdity of compressed music sounding better than the original or the futzing of non-linear resampling that she advocates, with any sort of discussion, other than to say that allowing such tripe on what is (ostensibly) an audiophile magazine is tremendously damaging to our shared cause of better sound.There are increasing numbers of naff audio magazines online -- positive-feedback surely tops the list. Truly our ears are not all cut from the same cloth!

Lanny Chambers's picture

Stephen, congratulations on the best piece you've written yet. Since you didn't mention it, I assume you haven't read Robert Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance." It's not an easy book, but I guarantee you'll be glad you invested the effort.

rudy yniguez's picture

I, too, read the articles, and simply came away with the thought that people have different priorities, and they do not necessarily include high definition music and expensive stereo equipment.Some people have long been into convenience and getting the most they can for their dollars.I would argue that even those who purport to love music seldom sit down and do nothing but listen to what they are playing, regardless of the medium. This is frequently pointed out on any of a variety of so-called audiophile Web sites.No biggy; to each his own.

al's picture

Hit the nail on the head.

RankStranger's picture

Nice one, Stephen. What can I say but, how do I pronounce your surname when I recommend your blog to other people?

Proper Stranger's picture

Great article, but the profanity adds nothing to your point. Stereophile is professionally written, edited and designed. You take justifiable pride in your "shopcraft". So, as the Stranger said to the Dude, "do ya have to cuss so durn much?"You made your points quite well without the "fuck"s, "shitty-assed"s and other epithets. Be a pro and write like one.

Jim Tavegia's picture

I do not get that upset at people who do not think exactly as I do. Audiophiles as a lot seem to get their feathers ruffled when people do not "buy in" to our hirez lifestyles. Farmville exists because all too many people do not have real lives and important things to worry about. Or, maybe, it is their diversion like music is to me. Maybe they are doing it as they are listening to music, however causally. I work with a 30 somthing who knows it all, a home theater geek, ps3 gamer, and never hesitates to tell me about all the music worth listening to. Kind of Blue was totally lost on him, but he fits in with many who also "don't get it". He can recite all the Star Trek movie Titles and will tell me which ones are worth watching. I all ready know...NONE when Vladimir Horowitz Live at the Met is waiting to be played. Oh, wait, it is Lang Lang and Rachmaninov. The masses have already sided with that young lady. Quality is out. Style and easy delivery are in. I thank Mary Chapin Carpenter for her new one

Larry's picture

Great think piece!! Jim also has some good points.Farmville? What's that? I'm actually glad I'm not up on all the latest things. I also don't do Twitter, Facebook & whatever!

Michael Mercer's picture

This could be the BEST piece I've ever read from you Stephen. BRAVO. It gets to the heart of what I've been trying to convey to both our brethren, and the younger generation; so obsessed with instant everything rather than thought provoking concepts.That article in the Times was complete BULLSHIT, and I'm pumped to see a fellow music addict and audio buff like yourself sound the horn. As long as we continue to educate the youth market, as well as the boomers and others about quality (and how they can upgrade their sonic integrity without breaking the wallet) our community and industry can thrive, and provide a little sonic bloow in their lives.Again; WELL DONE!!

KBK's picture

Yo, Stephen! Sounds like one of my rants. 'Cept I swear more. Jus' for effect.

Sam's picture

Thank you for this. Amen.

JonW's picture

"Finally, did the students know what they were listening to? Were they told beforehand that they were listening to the low-quality track? Were they taught what to listen for?"I would certainly hope not, since that would undermine any value to the experiment.

Stephen Mejias's picture

Thank you for your comments, everyone. These thoughts had been swimming around in my mind for awhile. There are still some loose ends, so I may come back to these topics at another time.Sorry about the cursing, but know that I do think&#151quite a bit, actually&#151about every word I use; there were more curses in this piece originally.Quang: I would love for you to have your students read this piece. I'm surprised, happily, that you'd even consider it.Rank: Thank you. It's something like: May-hee-ahs.

Stephen Mejias's picture

Lanny: Thank you. I read Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance a couple of times in high school. It was a very important book to me then. I've since tried reading it again, but haven't been able to get into it. Maybe it's time for me to revisit it. I still have my copy from high school.JonW: I disagree. To me, what you're saying would be like taking a child who has never learned to read and asking him which is the better book, Three Little Pigs or Animal Farm. People usually need to be taught before they can make useful, meaningful decisions.

Scott Atkinson's picture

'Shop Class...' should be required reading for anyone who has a hand in education - it's that good.And it's funny how it fits, years on, with 'Zen and...' which I read a half dozen times in my late teens/early 20s. It was my Howl or Atlas Shrugged, and its themes continue to dog me.Another book I recommend: 'Rebuilding The Indian.' It gets to some of the same places and is funny and sad and really, really well written.Scott A.

Doug Mencoff's picture

I find it rather disturbing that you purport to praise the affordable hi-fi gear that never gets reviewed in your magazine. If you want people to appreciate the quality of affordable good sounding gear, then you have to let them know about it. I was quite shocked and pleased to see the Marantz 5003 amp reviewed. That was a good start. But more would be nice. NAD, Rotel, and Cambridge are a few others who make good under $500 components. And there are good quality speakers from not only Polk, Infinity, PSB, and Paradigm, but also Monitor Audio, B&W, KEF, Wharfedale, Tannoy and others that cost less than $600 a pair. I'd like to see a review of the MA Bronze BR1 or 2 standmounts, or the KEF IQ10 or IQ30. The British magazines do a much better job of covering the entry level and hi-end, whereas you people (and the Absolute Sound) seem to be obsessed with $100,000 speakers, turntables and $10,000 wires. There are many good sounding cables from Audioquest, Straightwire, Kimber and others for less than $100. Aloha

Stephen Mejias's picture

Doug: In our current issue, we have reviews of the PSB Image B6 ($495/pr), YBA WD202 ($879), CEntrance DACport ($400), and Bob's Devices CineMag ($395), and Follow-Ups on the Musical Fidelity V-DAC ($300) and Cambridge DacMagic ($449).In our May issue, we have reviews of the Lindemann USB-DDC 24/96 ($650), Stello U2 ($349), Grado SR60i ($79), Little Dot Mk.III ($199), Music Hall ph25.2 ($399), Musical Surroundings Fozgometer ($250), and a $15 pair of yard sale Large Advents.You're right: We do review very expensive products. But we also review lots of affordable gear. So, while I appreciate your comment, I wonder if you're not looking at all the facts.

Doug Mencoff's picture

Stephen,I agree. You're correct. You guys have been reviewing more affordable gear than in the past. I appreciate it, because with the closing of all but three of our hi-fi shops here in Honolulu, we here in Hawaii are increasingly forced to buy new gear online unheard, so reviews become much more important. We always have the option of returning anything we don't like the sound of, but we still are out the cost of shipping both ways, which is a considerable amount for any but the smallest items. Besides, I'm poor and can't afford the really hi-end stuff.Keep up the good work.

Peter Lynn's picture

What you wrote about cell phones, messages, public exposure and personal communication matches the rants I have been making at work for the last year. People just think I'm strange. Convenience trumps quality in more than just sound quality these days; unfortunately, this also applies to personal relationships.